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Case of survival of the foulest?

Least-liked Hatch walks away with top TV prize

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Well, oil rises to the top. And the answer to a television mystery that caught the American public's imagination the way nothing has since "Who Shot J.R.?" nearly two decades ago came as a surprise: The oily, manipulative, Machiavellian, alliance-building Richard Hatch became the sole "Survivor" and pocketed a cool million bucks in the process.

Like J.R. Ewing of "Dallas," Hatch became the man America loved to hate. His win was an upset along the lines of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. If all the Internet chatter, public opinion polls and office-cooler speculation is to be believed, Hatch was by far the most disliked of the 16 original contestants who braved 39 days on a "deserted" island off the coast of Borneo.

There's no doubt that Hatch figured out how to play the game earlier and better than anyone else. But it's hard to say which is scarier — that he said, "I think I played as ethically as humanly possible," or that he really seemed to believe it.

What's truly shocking is that this offbeat show — part game show, part extreme sports, part soap opera, part thriller — which no one really expected to be a hit, turned out to be so incredibly popular.

CBS was expecting upward of 40 million people to tune in for the final episode of "Survivor," and the show's average rating made it the No. 1 show of the 52-week 1999-2000 season, beating out even "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

And it's fairly amazing that the news of who won "Survivor" didn't leak out even though the taping ended back in April. Of course, the cast and crew signed agreements that put them on the line for millions in damages if they spilled the beans.

"Survivor" transcended network television, becoming a true cultural phenomenon. Over the past couple of months, getting "voted off the island" became a metaphor and the punchline to innumerable jokes.

The game itself was fairly simple. The 16 contestants were divided into two "tribes" who competed against each other in "immunity challenges," and voted each other off the island one by one. Eventually the two tribes were merged into one and the voting continued.

The subplot that ran through the entire series was the alliance formed by Hatch with fellow contestants Kelly Wiglesworth, Rudy Boesch and Susan Hawk — lying, backstabbing and voting as a bloc to eliminate the competition.

Wednesday's two-hour finale featured two final immunity challenges — both won by Wiglesworth — and first Hawk, then Boesch, getting voted off.

And, while Wiglesworth didn't win the million, she wasn't the biggest loser on Wednesday — and not just because she got the $100,000 second prize. That "real loser" dishonor went to Hawk, who looked like the poorest of poor sports and the most hypocritical of hypocrites when she launched into a vicious verbal attack upon her former friend. "I'm not a very openly nice person," Hawk understated.

Not that Wiglesworth didn't also prove adept at manipulation and maneuvering. As fellow contestant Sean Kenniff observed when the voting came down to the final two, "I don't think either of you truly deserve it."

And not that any of this really mattered. The final voting came down to four for Hatch, three for Wiglesworth — and the deciding vote, from Greg Buis, was based on who came closest to the number he was thinking of between one and 10. (Hatch said four; Wiglesworth said three; Buis was thinking of seven.)

How dumb is that?

It was, in an odd sort of way, a fitting end to the strange little series.

This is not the end of "Survivor" or the last we're going to see of the contestants. Kenniff has already signed as a medical correspondent for the syndicated show "Extra," and he's going to appear on the soap opera "Guiding Light"; Gervase Peterson is going to guest star on the sitcom "The Hughleys"; Jenna Lewis and Colleen Haskell both say they've turned down offers to pose in Playboy; various and sundry contestants have made or are making various and sundry commercial endorsements.

Not only will CBS rerun all 13 episodes of "Survivor" beginning in mid-September — challenging NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics — but "Survivor II" begins taping Down Under in the Australian Outback in October and begins airing in January. The first new episode will be seen right after the Super Bowl.

Can you be voted off a continent, even a relatively small one like Australia?

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com